Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to participate in this debate as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs but also as a member of foreign affairs and international trade committee who has participated with the hon. member for Red Deer and others in debate on the question of Canada's peacekeeping missions, notably the most recent one in Haiti.
I want to begin by challenging the premise of the motion which is that unless there is a free vote in this House as is specified by the motion, Canada's role in peacekeeping missions is not debated by parliamentarians, that no debate has taken place.
That is manifestly not the case. With the committee of which the member is a part, we have been in the process of attempting to find a realistic way of obtaining the views of parliamentarians who are interested in the question of peacekeeping to provide good, timely and sound advice to the government on the question of renewal of peacekeeping missions and on the question of new peacekeeping missions.
In addition to that, we have been attempting to say that somehow because the debate occurs near the end of a given mission on the question of renewing that mission there has been no work done to bring the issue to the stage at which it is brought for debate is again a false presumption.
As the member knows, in dealing with issues that give rise to peacekeeping missions the international environment is changing all the time. At some point, with the facts at our disposal it is appropriate to have a discussion to get reasonable advice from members of Parliament on all sides of the House. That is what this government has been attempting to do, particularly the Minister of Foreign Affairs, using the resources of Parliament.
This continues to be the policy of this government and it will continue to be the policy of this government. Whenever possible and necessary, the House's opinion will be sought prior to Canadian troops being sent overseas.
In the international context, however, the Government of Canada must be able to act. More important, the government must be able to act quickly. This requires flexibility. Canada has been at the forefront of international peacekeeping policy for the past 40 years.
At the 50th United Nations general assembly in 1995, the previous minister of foreign affairs, the hon. Andre Ouellet, presented the Canadian study toward a rapid reaction capability for the United Nations.
It recognized that a faster response by the United Nations in times of crisis was required in today's world. The UN cannot act without the support of leading peacekeeping nations such as Canada.
This motion establishes a rigid process and risks tying the hands of the Government of Canada when the international community seeks our assistance. It does not recognize that each peacekeeping mission is distinct and must be treated as such.
It does not recognize the importance that Canadians and the international community place in our peacekeepers. Because of that, the motion does not receive the support of this government.
In normal circumstances, when a peacekeeping mission is being launched, reviewed or renewed, debate is encouraged, and the House is asked to support the initiative. However, there may be exceptional cases in the future in which time is of the essence. It may be necessary to react quickly in order to avert a disaster.
In these conditions, the government cannot be slowed down by a bill requiring a vote in the House before Canadian troops can be deployed. The government must be able to quickly send Canadian troops where they are needed. A requirement to hold a vote in the House would prevent the government from doing its duty. This could take time we do not have in these situations.
The face of peacekeeping and peace operations in general is changing. The world community does not always wait for a stable environment before intervening.
The United Nations and other international bodies now act to prevent conflicts from starting and to keep them from spreading. They deploy troops while fighting continues when there is no peace to keep. The focus is now on action rather than reaction. In order to fulfil its role as a pre-eminent peacekeeper, Canada must be able to act quickly and decisively when asked to do so. A conflict can escalate in a matter of weeks if not days. A ceasefire can
deteriorate or a town can be destroyed. The intervention of peacekeeping troops can help to prevent a situation from disintegrating into a tragedy.
We hope the world learned valuable lessons from peacekeeping operations like the one in Rwanda. It is no longer possible to stand back and do nothing. We must step in to avert a tragedy before the situation gets out of hand. Waiting for order to be restored in an area is no longer a viable solution.
Peacekeepers must sometimes be deployed somewhere on very short notice. If the situation is dangerous, they are asked to stop violence while it is occurring or before it starts and not after the harm has been done. We must respond to the horror of ethnic massacres with vigorous measures. Canada must play its part in helping to maintain the safety and security we as a people value so much.
This motion would prevent Canada from taking action. Our peacekeepers are considered to be among the best in the world. That is why the international community relies on Canada to participate in almost every UN mission. The word "Canadian" has become synonymous with peacekeeper. One of our Prime Ministers, the Right Hon. Lester B. Pearson, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for coming up with the concept of peacekeeping. In 1988, the peacekeepers themselves received a medal in recognition of their services.
If we cannot respond to UN calls for help, other countries will start questioning Canada's commitment to this organization, and therefore its relevance as a peacekeeping tool.
If we chose to ignore the United Nations' demands, then many other countries will question the confidence they have put in this organization. We must not let this happen. When the UN and the international community call, we must answer. We must be able to react on very short notice, if required.
Peacekeepers have taken on more aggressive roles in peace enforcement but they have also accepted the hat of humanitarian relief workers. Not only do United Nations soldiers separate warring parties, now they must also feed, shelter and protect the civilian populations.
A prime example of this is the new Disaster Assistance Response Team, DART. It is designed to begin the deployment of its 180 members to a humanitarian disaster within 48 hours. The team will provide the infrastructure necessary for UN organizations or non-governmental organizations to follow in the coming weeks. In the interim, DART will provide medical and structural support for the surrounding community.
This could not happen if there was a postponement due to a required debate within the House. A situation could decay just as rapidly in a humanitarian emergency as it can in times of armed conflict. The delay could cost the lives of hundreds of innocent people. It could even make deploying the force impossible.
If they had arrived according to schedule, then the force may avert further disaster. Canada must be in a position to stop a tragedy from developing. If we are capable of doing this let us not be entangled by unnecessary legislative requirements when people are dying. Let us not create reasons why we cannot help those who need our assistance in order to survive. Let us not antagonize and shame the Canadian people.
Canada would lose its status as a leader among countries providing peacekeeping troops if it could not react when the help of Canadian men and women is requested. Last year, Canada released a study entitled "Towards a Rapid Reaction Capability for the United Nations".
We have seen in the past that reacting quickly is a must in a crisis situation. With this report, Canada is now providing a model for the future.
I realize that my speaking time is up. I will therefore wrap up quickly. The government agrees that a debate on our commitments should be held either in this House or before the Parliament of Canada.
It is quite another story to ask that there be a vote before Canada can make any commitment, every time Canada makes a commitment, for the reasons I stated in my remarks.